Tag Archives: writing

Why you don’t lie to your editor

Are you surprised to find that some writers lie to the person they hire to help them succeed? Don’t be.

The reading public, which I love nonetheless, at times lacks a clear picture of the author/editor dynamic. In most people’s perceptions, the editor/author relationship is a battle between conflicting views of “what’s best for the book.” I do not operate according to that model. If the client thinks s/he knows better than I do what’s best for his or her book, and began this relationship simply to fight with me, I have better things to do than play the game. Maybe that person just wants to win an argument for ego’s sake, or is simply disagreeable.

(For confirmation: if you go to any message board meant for writers, you’ll see enough ego on display to last you weeks. Let it be known that you’re an editor, and you can begin the countdown to your first typo, and a smug callout from a small mind who considers that s/he has just taken a scalp. They are rarely worth one’s time.)

Perhaps some editors do work in such an adversarial way. I prefer a discussion/consensus model, and I find that the better the writer, the better that works. The best writers crave feedback and specifics, and they will beat both out of me–exactly as they should, if by some lapse I fail to volunteer them. I cannot get away with a terse statement to them like “that’s incorrect.” They want to know my whole reasoning. This in turn makes me a better editor, because I had better not propose anything I’m not willing to defend. And if I don’t also have the solution to offer, I’m in trouble. What good am I if I can’t tell my client how to improve? Better writers make me a better editor. With them, the consensus model works best because the better writers have more grounds for valid counterpoints, which means we can put our heads together for the best outcome. Viewed another way, when someone can’t write and can’t storytell, the person doesn’t have much to defend. I can and will help that person, but he or she doesn’t usually have the ability to debate how things should be.

By now, not much surprises me, but some things disappoint me. I have had clients accept a lot of developmental feedback, then stiff me. My fault, really, for allowing the situation to get to that point. In one case, though, I was deceived from start to beyond the finish. It involved an Alan Smithee, and I think the story can now be told.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym sometimes seen in cinema credits. It replaces the name of a person who did not want name credit. I use a similar method when I do not want to attach my name to a book, which can be for many reasons. The most common reason is that my client won’t listen to me, and stands firm in believing that s/he knows better, deciding to override my guidance.

Some time back, I heard from a writer with an incredible story to tell. This client, who went by an obvious pseudonym, told me that s/he had met a renegade who supposedly performed blatantly illegal activities at the behest of legally sanctioned individuals, had had a change of heart about those activities, and decided to tell the story. My client was expecting any moment to suffer great retaliation for talking about it (the renegade supposedly being either dead or beyond reach of retaliatory acts). I read the ms. There were minimal specifics about the illegal activities, but lots of sociopolitical rants, and over half the book told the tale of an abusive relationship that had no bearing on the book’s billing. Why did this renegade open up to my client? The answers were vague, where any were forthcoming at all.

I gave my frank impressions: the story’s billing was deceptive, the logic was flawed, the rants were illogical and alienating, the tone was self-serving, and the book wasn’t going to be very good. I wanted much more about the cloak-and-dagger stuff, less about a bad childhood, and much less about a very bad relationship.

My client rejected most of my guidance. S/he was often very coy, the sort of person who won’t just come out and say something, but will drop enough hints to enable one to Google. I was able to verify some of the renegade’s story, though in many cases there seemed to be two sides to that story. The client claimed to have promised the renegade to leave certain parts in; naturally, they were the very worst parts. I did trim out a lot of the fat, and I obtained the addition of a minimal segment of cloak and dagger, but in the end my client only acted on about 15% of my guidance. This client therefore wasted about 85% of the money spent, and I could do nothing about it.

I came to realize that when my copy arrived. (I do not negotiate a complimentary copy, so this was at my instigation. I take pride in being one of the first customers to buy a copy at retail. Seriously, when someone pays you thousands of dollars, the very least you can do is buy your own damn copy from your client.) I shook my head in disappointment. Early reception and sales confirmed my expectations, with those few reviewers calling out the book’s deceptive nature. The positive reviewers were obvious sock puppets. It was all rather sad.

Not long after, my client contacted me: retaliation was coming, might catch me in the target area, and s/he would no longer be able to connect with me by normal means. In so doing, this client dropped enough information to confirm what I had considered 90% certain from the start: the client was also the renegade. All the stuff about getting the renegade to tell his story was twaddle. All the stuff about material the writer had promised the renegade not to alter? Baloney. How challenging it must have been to keep up the whole charade, with the author wondering if I were just playing along, or whether I could possibly be that dumb. Maybe that’s why the client ignored so much of my guidance: going along with the pretense made me look stupid, and thus not to be heeded.

Now, of course, I had much better reason to doubt most aspects of the tale, including its fundamentals. It was not all lies; I had verified a few of the less controversial parts. The renegade was a real person. The illegal activities? I came to believe they were all inventions, and that I didn’t get specifics because the renegade/client didn’t want to author any more fiction. The author’s naive belief was that people would buy a book purportedly full of Shocking Revelations, and not mind when it turned out to be mostly a story of bad childhood and bad relationships, combined with the renegade’s desire to spin the entire story to his/her own glory and the detriment of the renegade’s enemies. Somehow, the client believed that the buyer would not feel scammed.

If the few purchasers felt taken in, I understand that. So do I. If someone isn’t honest with me, it will limit my ability to help that client. In this case, throughout my editing work, I’d had to operate as though accepting the cover story. In reality, I hadn’t been talking to a person who had made an arrangement with a renegade just before that person planned to disappear, and who thus was not a direct participant with no ax to grind. I was talking to the ax-grinder in person, and the ax-grinder had had to supplement lies with more lies.

That simply piles atrocious upon bad and flawed.

Why do that? In the end, I think that the better writer believes that the relationship is about quality, and the worse writer believes that it is about control. The better writer wants to discuss, to hear justification, to brainstorm, to learn, and to produce ever-improving literary product. The worse writer fears a loss of control, and in service of control, may keep secrets. Or tell lies. Or defend the illogical. Or bicker without need. In the end, the worse writer knows his or her work is worse, and that the fundamentals boil down to:

“Well, my client, the bad news is that neither the story nor the writing are very good, but we could fix those.”

“But that’s my style, Mr. Editor! That’s my story!”

“Well, if you insist, then your style and story are bad.”

“I cannot accept that answer. I will keep looking until I find someone who believes in my work.”

“Very good. Best of success to you.”

Allowing major change, the thinking goes, would lose the battle for control. I do not consider that so. Allowing major change would teach the writer to be a much better writer with a more evolved perspective on his or her products, better able to defend decisions and less likely to need to do so.

But if they lie to me, it is fair to say that the percentage of the truth I am told sets an upper ceiling on the percentage of the available good I can do them. And once I learn of the lie in mid-book, while I will finish what I started, there won’t be a second project. I don’t care much for being deceived. I find that most people who live mostly by lies are not offended when caught lying. It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last. They do not expect a consequence if they continue lying; all debunked lies are now water under the bridge. Lie too often, for too long, and it becomes more addictive than an opiate. It becomes reflex, habit, first nature. Before deciding how to answer, the person ceases to ask him or herself ‘what is the actual true answer?’ and asks only ‘what answer would best suit my needs?’

Now, if someone came to me with an explosive tale of intelligence work that would shock the nation to its core, here is the first thing I would say: “Let us have one understanding. What truths you do not wish to tell me, tell me honestly that you will not tell me those, and I will not press you. But do not, even once, tell me a lie. The moment I believe you have is the moment I reserve the right to drop the job like a live grenade. If you cannot live by that agreement, let’s go our separate ways here and now.”

Like anyone else, editors live and learn.

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Why it costs what it costs

My line of work involves a lot of sticker shock. I’m sometimes the recipient, as in: I look into a situation, discover that it would require me to work for about $1.75 per hour, and realize that there are people desperate enough to accept that and people ready to exploit that desperation. Other times, I’m the shocker rather than the shockee.

I don’t make public my pricing methodology, but it’s based on the amount of time and effort required to do the job right. That, in turn, is affected most by the size of the job and the depth of attention necessary. Length is always the biggest factor: if someone wants a critical read with suggestions, and the ms is 400 pages long, well, that’s a lot of work. It’s a lot more involved than a 120-page short novel, and will require much more mental juggling to keep track of everything. (That critical read would also be included in an editing job, if that were wanted, as part and parcel. But one must do as one was engaged to do.)

Proofreading is least expensive, because my brain really is not on the storyline, but on catching errors. The author failed to deliver adequate character development? Not my purview. Author made a grammatical error? Fix it and move on. Story is insipid? Not what I was hired to address. Big ton of loose spaces? Fix them. I go over the entire thing at least twice, but that’s simply because I am better at this than other people.

Editing is more expensive, and more variable, because it depends upon what shape the writing is in. Good writing costs less because it may have sentences that can stand without my intervention. Bad writing costs more because I have to make it into good writing. Editing also depends upon length, of course, and on intricacy and complexity. No two are alike, and different mss require different treatments. A one-method-fits-all approach would not help to transform the ms into the best book it can be.

This can mean that I send a ms back to the author with strong suggestions and observations, and suggest some reworking before we get into editing. What I am really saying there is: “This has some flaws I consider lethal. If I fix them for you, in the first place, it will be very expensive. In the second, it will be me supplying the creativity, because a rewrite has no boundaries. I think it’s better if the creativity and flow of ideas are yours; it’s your book. Consult me any time as you go, but I hope you’ll rework this.” If the author can’t or won’t do that, and still wants me to edit it, that’s a problem because I’m not comfortable sending out a fatally flawed book. That means…

…rewriting. I undertake this with great reluctance, but if someone insists and accepts the greatly inflated cost, I may decide to take it. Rewriting happens when either the writing or the story have such severe flaws that plain editing won’t suffice. It’s also rare, because in my experience the worse the writing, the more certain is the author of that writing’s perfection and brilliance. Distilled to the result, the combination of sticker shock and the notion of complete change of even the basic style (which can have no other meaning but “this isn’t good at all”) usually end up sparing me rewriting jobs. And that’s fine, because they are arduous. I would so much rather offer feedback and guidance so that I can simply edit a much-improved ms.

Composition or ghostwriting is the next level up. This happens when I don’t have a ms to work with, just notes or guidelines. Creating that ms is my task. I have done a great deal of it as a contributing author, and I like it well enough, but it’s even more work to do well, and costs even more. It can entail travel, interviewing, purchasing of books, library trips, transcription, and every other manner of research available to me.

Thus, if you’re hoping to keep the price within reason, keep the length within reason. Big book = big project.

New release: _Rock ‘n Roll Heaven_, by Shawn Inmon

Rock ‘n Roll Heaven has been released. This is a medium-length novel focused on the life and times of a fictitious small-time rocker, and in a broader sense the evolution of rock and roll. I was substantive editor.

Its genesis goes back two decades in Shawn’s life, a story he tells in the Author’s Notes. If memory serves, my involvement began about the time he was considering the sequel to his very successful Feels Like The First Time. The opening conversation was inauspicious. Paraphrased:

S: “I want to write a novel about a musician who ends up interacting with all his idols in the afterlife.”

J: “Are you kidding? That’s the loopiest idea I’ve ever heard. It has zero commercial potential. You’re out of your mind.” (I’ve left out the bad words.)

S: “Maybe, but I want to write it anyway. If I do it, will you edit it?”

J: “Of course. If I can’t talk you out of it, I’ll gladly help you make it the best it can be.”

We talked about it for a while, with me not warming to the idea at all. Shawn planned to write about what he loves second only to his wife and children: rock and roll and its history. To me, the whole notion seemed masturbatory, and I told him so. Then what should I do to make it work? Shawn has a gift for asking the right questions. I said that it had better include a story, and a good one.

Shawn is sort of a Veeckian character, a puckish soul with laughing eyes who knows how to let an experience unfold. He’s a great pleasure to work with, because he can take the highest caliber of frankness for which my literary fieldpiece is chambered.

Think about what I did. This is a paying client. I told him the idea was loopy. Then I told him, in cruder terms, that it was self-indulgent, and had no chance to make any money. That’s not what you say when you want the work. At that point, most authors are looking for an editor who believes in the book concept, which means that an editor who doesn’t is Not On Board.

That’s why some authors fail: they focus mainly on people who tell them what they want to hear. They are brilliant, this is the Next Big Thing, etc. They are looking for reassurance and strokes, independent validation of the gushing they got from their spouses and Aunt Sandy. They aren’t looking for someone to tell them they need to improve. Any editor can–and many do–make a living telling novice authors they are brilliant, because it’s what they crave.

Aspiring editors can milk this. Many aspiring writers consider their prose a perfected work of art. Anyone who Fails To Adore simply has no taste, doesn’t get their genius. The less that you say needs to change about their writing, the more credible you are in their eyes. The easy route to good money is to do less work and more sucking up. I’ll even supply the Magic Bullshit (since I’m not using it anyway): “Honestly, I think this is very well written. I can suggest some minor changes, and check for errors, but I love the story.” Just say that. It will mark you as a Believer, and you’ll be hired. Over and over.

Since you won’t do much actual work, you will have quick turnarounds and an airtight explanation: “There wasn’t that much that needed fixing.” Excited would-be authors will preen in delight, seeing that a Real Editor recognizes their genius. The product will be garbage, because the client sought and received sycophancy rather than critique and valuable ideas, but you got paid and your client loved ‘working with’ you. Right?

True confession: I wasn’t completely candid with Shawn. I left out one thing: I was fascinated to see what in hell he would come up with. The man has a Churchillian zigzag lightning streak through his mind, and only a fool would underestimate him. (I no longer do, and am relieved to be less a fool.) Along came the ms, and while I was blunter than usual about some of its issues, it also threw me some invigorating surprises. His research and portrayals of rock legends rang thorough, creative and difficult to predict. Not only did he wrap it around a creditable story, making that story the focal point rather than the rock-and-roll musings, but he redid the opening and hit it off the scoreboard. My work was to keep the strings from showing; let’s hope that readers feel I succeeded at it.

I did one thing differently this time. I normally work in silence broken only by the periodic comments of Alex, my white-eyed conure (a little parrot, bright green). Since the book centered on rock and roll, I felt it irresponsible to edit without background music. It was odd how sometimes the song that played seemed pertinent to my current focus in the narrative.

The creepiest aspect was the author’s notes at the end. I haven’t been asked to edit those before, thank the gods. In this case, for the first time since I’ve worked with Shawn, I found myself perusing his laudatory comments about my work and what it means to his creative process. You tell me: how the hell do you edit someone else’s nice words about yourself? What if you were getting a medal, and were asked to edit the citation that would be read at the ceremony? I prefer ‘as minimally as possible and let’s get the hell out of here,’ and that’s what I did. Or didn’t, one might say. But in spite of my intense embarrassment from the process, Shawn, thanks. Awful kind of you.

R&RH will surprise the reader on several levels. One of Shawn’s last serious questions was the proper Amazon category. Contemporary fantasy? Metaphysical fiction? The truth is a mixture of the two. It contains strong texture and depth on the subject of music and how it is made, but also tells a profound self-discovery story. If you are sick of cloned books, and want something original, I doubt you’ve ever read anything quite like it.

What you might not know about writers, editors and proofreaders

And there’s a lot.

Writers:

  • A surprising number of us are unbearable. Truly. The dirtiest little secret about writers, in my view, is how many of us have some paralytic personality flaw that means we are best off away from polite society. Don’t lament that J.D. Salinger became reclusive; realize that he was probably doing humanity a good deed.
  • What motivates us to write varies from person to person, but one thing is consistent: at one point, we were all terrible, and great irritants to others. Some of us improved.
  • You’d be astonished how much writing is done while drunk. Ernest Hemingway wasn’t so anomalous. I am not convinced James Joyce ever wrote a sober line. Anthony Burgess wrote most of A Clockwork Orange, one of my favorites, through a haze of ethanol. I have sent off work that disturbed me so profoundly that I could not finish drafting it with a clear head.
  • Few of us make any money. That is for several reasons. 1) Most of us cannot market and hate marketing, considering it icky. 2) What many of us want to write is not what many people will pay to read. 3) A lot of us consider ourselves too good to take on the writing that really does pay. 4) In an increasingly less literate nation, we are not exactly in rising demand.
  • Writer’s block, which does not exist unless you author it and dignify it with the name, is not the main bugbear for writers, though it’s a handy excuse for not wanting to write and not desiring to admit that. The main bugbear is ego: the deep-seated fear that one will be exposed as a fake.
  • Pet peeve? People who love to catch me in a simple human error when I’m not in a professional writing situation. “Ha ha! You spelled that wrong!” So petty, so childish, and so lowers my opinion of someone.
  • Writers with no senses of humor about themselves and their foibles are beyond retrieval.

Editors:

  • Editors come in many levels of competency. There are no certifications.
  • When you communicate with us in writing, most of us aren’t mentally correcting your grammar and spelling. People have to pay us to do that. If no one is paying, that means no one wants us doing that. Nothing is gained by doing it for free just to be an ass, or because we can. That’d just alienate people. Some damned smart people are ESL, or have disabilities, stuff like dyslexia, or various other reasons they aren’t great typists or grammarians.
  • Not every editor is right for every writer. For example, I am not a good editor for someone who can’t write and cannot face that reality when presented with tact. I just have to live with that.
  • Editors who take pleasure in hammering stakes into writers’ work are unprofessional and shortsighted. They exist. They are addicted to that self-absorbed jolly they get from a well-crafted misericord run up under the writer’s ribs. Most can’t make any money editing. We call those ‘Amazon reviewers.’ They are competent to point out flaws, but evidently incompetent to help authors remedy them.
  • Editing processes can vary a great deal from editor to editor and from project to project. For example, if on the initial evaluation, I am sent an outdated version of a ms, then an updated version, the value of my work is gutshot because once I begin reading for the first time and thinking, a new version will require me to doubt every ‘feel’ that I gained, for I cannot get a truly clean second set of first impressions. For others, that’s not a problem.
  • Before you snark that the author “obviously didn’t hire a competent editor,” consider this: you have no idea what the ms looked like before the editor got to work. You also have no idea how many edits were rejected by the author. It may have been so bad that the editor asked for Alan Smithee credits and didn’t get that courtesy.
  • Editors without senses of humor about themselves and their work cannot be saved. Take them behind the barn, and return without them.

Proofreaders:

  • We are born, not made. I know of no way to make someone care about precision and minutiae, nor to train them to do so.
  • Our processes vary, as do our competencies. My own is simple: I do it all twice at least. And if on the second pass I find anything of significance, I do it a third. A fourth and fifth, if need be. My credibility and value lie in missing nothing. For a good proofreader, a solitary mistake is unacceptable.
  • Proofreading may at times verge into light editing. The ability to handle that shift with minimal effort is a valuable thing.
  • As with editors, before you snark that the proofreader obviously did the job high on meth, bear in mind that publishers can blunder so monumentally as to publish unedited versions of a given ms. It happened to Allen Barra, a very capable author who could reasonably have expected better from a prominent publishing house. If the product is defective, the publisher is at fault. It was the publisher’s duty to assure that there were zero errors in the publication-ready ms.
  • To be a capable proofreader, you have to enjoy finding errors. To get paid to do it, you have to learn not to spike that particular ball in the end zone. You are in the business of telling people they did it wrong. No one is having fun when that happens, or if you are, no one will want to work with you. You need not apologize for doing your job well, but if you exult in all your catches, people will hate you.
  • Proofreaders who can’t face the fact that even they will miss mistakes are doomed. Do what I do: utter a sentence full of shocking blasphemies and gutter vulgarities, apologize and abase yourself, and move on. And don’t ever miss one again!

But you will.

How a crazy busy ‘lancing day looks

Freelancing is like Starfleet at times. Weeks of boredom and maintenance, a day or so of holycrapIhaveatonofstufftodo. Today was one of those days, so let’s walk you through it.

Morning. Finish second and final editing pass on true-life romance manuscript. What? If people hire me to edit their work, it usually gets edited at least twice? Am I that inefficient? No, that’s not the issue. On the first pass, I fix everything that’s obvious, but about halfway through I have spotted some trends, and realize that in the early going, unaddressed instances of those trends exist. I must normalize these so that the overall editing is consistent. In the ideal world, I would make the book sound like the author, only smoother. With good writing, one can do that. When it’s not so good, if it sounded like the author, well, they don’t pay me to maintain mediocrity. This one was pretty good even before I got my inky paws on it. Finish around 2 PM. Refuse to send it off. Want one more quick whirlwind read before I sign off on it as completed work. I hate making any mistakes.

During morning, receive inquiry from fiction author about rates and editing. Exchange e-mails. We agree that author will send me ms, I’ll look it over, I’ll sample edit a few pages and send it back along with a quote. This one will be somewhere between editing and rewriting, so there may be sticker shock, but if you want a great book that’s what it’ll cost. Receive and begin sample edit. I can’t tell what a ms really needs until I sit down and actually edit some of it.

Early afternoon, hear from author of true-life romance ms, who is about as calm and patient waiting for me to send him the finished work as he probably was when his children’s mother was eased onto the obstetric bed to have his first daughter. He is stuck on his blurb, which is his least favorite aspect of readying a book, and randomly mentions that if only someone would just take $x and do it, he’d be happy. With calm irony, I mention how unfortunate it is that he doesn’t happen to know anyone who writes for money. My author is not a fool. I advise him, however, that his price is outrageously high and that I won’t do it for more than $.6x. He complains that it’s well worth $x to him, and wants to pay that. I remain impassive and unmoving; $.6x, not a penny more. Unfortunately, I have no leverage, as in the end I can’t prevent him from writing a check that overpays me, so if that happens, I’ll just have to smile and thank him. However, he still only owes me $.6x for it. Let’s not forget that. In the process I learn that his wife–whose story he is writing as told to him–is enchanted at the many new words I have coined from her name. Encouraged, I start to lean into that and make a real effort to coin them just for fun. I like her story, and I respect the candor of her narrative.

Real life intervenes: wife has just come from home inspection for our soon-to-be own private Idaho. Problems are relatively minor, but here’s a chance to extract from the seller a little of her own overly hard bargaining. Drop everything, attend to review, discussion, and authoring of letter to real estate agent presenting a suggested offer regarding home’s flaws. Make wifely corrections. Day is crazy. Miss Big Brother premiere. “Sorry, dear, buying your dream home is less important than watching a really trashy reality show,” said no happy husband ever. Will watch later online. Someday.

Make grocery run. Welcome break. Buy the usual unhealthy stuff, though at least I’m eating less of it lately.

Whirlwind final review of romance ms, then birth the baby and hand it to author. Pretty sure author drops everything else in his world, except the woman about whom the story tells, to examine ms. I hear nothing back, so he’s probably happy. He’s probably still awake reading it as I write this, after midnight.

Not even close to done for day. Finish sample edit on fiction ms, so as to have eyes-off time to review tomorrow for presentation to author.  Reckon I’m on the right track.

Time for physical therapy. Having discovered that during 2/3 of the exercises I can read a book or magazine, I get in some reading on a travel bio sent me for review by a pleasant Australian DJ. When I’m sent a review copy, my rule is that it’s automatically at the top of the stack until I finish it and post a review. To me, that’s just simple fairness and gratitude to the author. Just about finish it as I am doing resisted hamstring curls–it’s not a thick book, in fact not as thick as I wish it were. By now it’s 11:30 PM, and in some form, I have been at work for twelve hours.

Still not done. A blog entry is way overdue. Regular readers don’t know I was in Idaho for three days with a 4.5 hour drive each way, and unless they’re personal friends, may not be moved by that. They just know nothing’s happening here. This cannot be tolerated, and I am somewhat understandably a bit tired, so I pull up WordPress and begin a blog entry. About what? Remember, there is no writer’s block. You want to write or you don’t. Obviously I want to write at this time, because I refuse not to write. Then decide that a busy literary day might be interesting to concierges, engineers, nurses, electricians, homemakers, lawyers, game wardens, activists, campground managers, cashiers, and all the other folk who take time to read what I write. I put on some rap and get to work.

At half past midnight, my workday is done. Productive day. If this was my every day, I’d have a lot less spare time, but I’d deal.

Good morning, dear reader.